Ask Dr. Universe: How do you learn something difficult?


Dear Dr. Universe: How do you learn something difficult? – Kai, 12, Alaska

Dear Kai,

There are so many different things we can learn in our world, but that doesn’t mean learning is always easy. You might want to learn a process, like how to complete a Rubik’s Cube, code an application, design a solution to a problem, or answer scientific questions.

My friend Sarah Fick, Assistant Professor of Science Education at Washington State University, was delighted to hear your question. She said that one way to learn something difficult is to ask yourself a lot of questions about yourself and others.

Questions like: Why is this difficult? Are you trying to remember something? Are you trying to figure out how it works? Are you trying to solve a difficult problem? Can you come up with something or come up with an idea that will help you solve this problem? Where can you find more information about your problem or who can you contact?

“Based on the learning experiences you have had – and the knowledge you have gained from your family and your community – you are going to approach these issues with your own strengths,” said Fick.

Things that are easy for you may be difficult for someone else, or the reverse may be true. Fick reminded me that while we can learn a process, we can also learn more about how a process works. That’s what scientists do – they help us bring deeper knowledge to the world.

Through data collection, researchers can help us leverage current knowledge to create new knowledge. Another thing scientists do is create a model or draw a picture showing how they think the process works. Sometimes a model can help us understand what we know and what we are still wondering about.

When you are learning something difficult, it also helps to ask yourself what motivates you to learn. Maybe the motivation is that you want a good mark on a test. We call this extrinsic motivation. But maybe you want to learn how to do something for, well, you. Then you have intrinsic motivation. When motivation comes from within, it often helps us learn.

Finally, while it can seem frustrating to learn difficult topics or tasks, sometimes it is a good sign. You may be struggling with knowledge that is new to you and you may be on your way to becoming an “aha!” moment when you gain a better understanding.

One of Fick’s research areas is to help us better understand how students can use their knowledge in one subject, such as math, to help them learn more about another subject, such as science. Learning often happens when we find connections, including connections with our daily lives.

There are a lot of different factors that go into learning something difficult, and these are just a few. The next time you find yourself facing a learning challenge, take a deep breath, ask yourself good questions, and prepare for the next step in your learning journey, wherever it takes you.


Dr Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a project of Washington State University. Submit a question to [email protected].


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